Hidden fee still ahead

With the state still suffering from the effects of a national economic recession and average Marylanders still struggling to make ends meet, Gov. Martin O'Malley ought to be absolutely certain that legislation approved by the General Assembly this year doesn't make matters worse for no good reason.

Put at the top of that list the controversial plan to force Maryland drivers to buy more liability insurance. Currently, the minimum is $20,000 to compensate for the injury to one person injured or killed in an accident and $40,000 for more than one. The measure approved by the state legislature would raise those minimums to $30,000 and $60,000.

Within the legislature, the argument pitted the trial attorneys who stand to benefit from the bigger awards that the new limits may facilitate against insurers who think the biggest impact will be to drive up costs and cause more drivers to drop coverage altogether.

But too easily lost in this classic political struggle of insurance companies against lawyers is what this means for working families. The governor ought to convene a public forum -- preferably at a time and location that allows average people to attend -- to hear from those for whom a potential $300 increase in insurance rates is almost unthinkable right now.

As much as lawmakers promised not to raise taxes and fees this year, the insurance bill stands out like a sore thumb. Even the legislature's own fiscal analysts agreed that it would likely raise rates as much as 9.3 percent.

Worst of all, it's an increase that will affect only those who can least afford it. People of means generally buy more liability coverage than the minimums in order to protect their financial assets.

One group likely to be hit especially hard: those insured by the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, or MAIF, the state's insurer of last resort. MAIF drivers already pay a lot for coverage, and this will only make things worse.

No state bordering Maryland requires this much liability coverage, and that alone should give Mr. O'Malley pause. The increase could affect 240,000 families living in this state. They are the constituency the governor should care about, not the trial attorneys who helped fund his first run for governor and are expected to contribute heavily to his re-election campaign. Lawyers may complain that the liability rates haven't been raised in decades, but the reality is that 99 percent of claims paid are still below the limits -- the average is less than $6,000. Raise the cost of driving for the working poor now, and the jobless rolls are only going to expand. There's just not a compelling reason to raise insurance rates when Marylanders are still coping with such a devastating economic recession.

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